Tag Archives: James Fenton

Quest for Laughs

DON QUIXOTE

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 13th April, 2016

 

Not only did Shakespeare pop his clogs 400 years ago this year but so did Cervantes, author of the original novel on which this play – and modern fiction! – is based.  To commemorate the Spaniard’s deathiversary the RSC has mounted this fiery steed of a production, a new adaptation by James Fenton.

Elderly and infirm, Don Quixote decides to put in to practice what has been his lifetime’s study, namely the chivalric code of the knights of old.  It’s never too late to reinvent yourself, it appears.  Off he goes, from adventure to adventure, but when reality clashes with his ideals, we are amused but he is undaunted; his code of conduct will not allow him to complain or be deterred by setbacks.  And so the will of the old man gradually begins to impose itself on the world – in particular his upholstered squire, Sancho Panza.  The story becomes a lesson in how to handle those with dementia, meeting them in their misperceptions – up to a point.

It is riotously funny and performed with theatrical brio, you have no option but to enjoy it from the off.  As Sancho Panza, Rufus Hound warms us up with a bit of ad lib banter – this is not so much audience participation as audience involvement.  Willingly, we follow Sancho and his knight on their journey, buying into the artifice of the conventions in play and relishing the inventiveness of the enterprise as well as the gusto of the performers.  Hound is practically perfect for this.

As the unsinkable Quixote, David Threlfall gives a Lear-worthy portrayal, in a physically demanding role – he gets beaten repeatedly, snatched up into the air by the sails of a windmill, and generally runs around in an apparently tireless fashion.  Above all though – and I don’t just mean when he’s on the windmill – he engages us with the old man’s world-view.  How romantic and exciting the mundane becomes through his eyes, when two flocks of sheep become opposing armies and when windmills become marauding giants.

The rest of the cast dash around in multiple roles.  Richard Leeming makes an impression as a dozy boy servant (and later as Quixote’s horse); Nicholas Lumley delights as the Priest appropriating mucky literature; Gabriel Fleary gives a hilarious turn as the Biscayan, strutting and fretting before a fight; Natey Jones’s sowgelder, Timothy Speyer and Will Bliss as barbers… Everyone gets their turn.  I could append the cast list and have done with it.

There are songs throughout, plenty of Spanish guitar, to add flavour.  The period comes across through the costumes – there is very little in the way of set apart from what the cast brings on and takes off.  Inventive use is made of trapdoors throughout.  Johanna Town’s lighting gives us Spanish sunshine as well as evoking the changing locations and moods of this episodic narrative.  Angus Jackson’s direction keeps the action flowing at speed, with more reflective moments during which his two leading men are nothing short of a joy to behold.

The icing on this delightful cake comes in the form of babies, sheep, and a lion, from puppet-master Toby Olie and Laura Cubitt.  Irresistible.

There are moments when a Pythonesque sensibility comes to the fore, and we venture into Holy Grail territory but then you have to remember how influential Cervantes is.  The windmill has turned full circle.

An unadulterated pleasure from start to finish, this new Don Quixote is the must-see of the RSC’s current season.

Don Quixote RSC

David Threlfall and Rufus Hound (Photo: Helen Maybanks)

 

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Zhao Wow

THE ORPHAN OF ZHAO
Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 6th December, 2012

The story is the stuff of legend and folk tale, detailing events before and after the birth of the titular orphan. Thousands of years old, the plot has elements of Hamlet, The Caucasian Chalk Circle and even Star Wars and The Lion King, and yet this new adaptation by James Fenton feels fresh as well as familiar. It is never short of engaging or thoroughly entertaining and it’s also rather stirring.

Niki Turner’s stylish but sparse set is the backdrop for this epic story, while Stephanie Arditti’s extravagant costumes and Paul Inglishby’s music lend an Oriental air to the proceedings. I believe there was some hullabaloo about the casting of this production, the dearth of Chinese actors in the company. This bum’s view on this kind of argument is, Acting is all about pretending to be what you are not. Otherwise, you could say only a Dane may play Hamlet, and pantomime dames and principal boys better start claiming the dole.

Anyway…

We meet the Emperor (Stephen Ventura), a man given to taking pot shots at the populace with his bow and arrow, purely for the sake of entertainment. His right hand man and (the biggest) villain of the piece is Tu’An Gu – Joe Dixon, who is great fun with his Northern twang and massive mastiff. He is the Darth Vader to Jake Fairbrother’s Cheng Bo – the long lost Orphan himself. Fairbrother is splendid as the dashing young hero who comes to learn his true identity, showing nobility and vulnerability in the same moments. The wonderful Lucy Briggs-Owen is the wronged Princess, mother to the Orphan, roaming her palace prison like Miss Havisham Peking style. You hope she will be reunited with her son; indeed it is inevitable but in this story of sudden violence and self-sacrifice, you can’t be entirely sure it will come to pass. Until it does.

Country doctor Cheng Ying provides the emotional core of the story in a fine and affecting performance by Graham Turner. As characters come and go, dropping like flies, it is through him that we witness the turning of events. Nia Gwynne gives a moving turn as his wife, forced to make the greatest sacrifice – This is a sweeping story with very dramatic events but performances like those of Turner and Gwynne imbue it with emotional integrity, lifting it above the fairytale and the fireside yarn.

Gregory Doran directs with gusto, allowing humour to permeate the sensational scenes. There is shocking violence but it is its impact on the story rather than its depiction that affects us. Red petals rain gently from above every time someone dies, which is often. The plot is resolved satisfactorily – you get a feeling that justice has been done, that right has prevailed – and the final scene, a confrontation between Cheng Ying and the ghost of the child he sacrificed is eerie, moving and, again, right.

It is a pity the Swan was not packed to the rafters at the performance I attended – it’s one of the strongest productions in the RSC’s current season.

Jake Fairbrother (Cheng Bo)_The Orphan of Zhao_photo credit Kwame Lestrade